ELBERT PHILLIPS: MAN OF “ENTEGRITY”
A true Renaissance Man, Elbert Phillips has spread his talents in the House Music industry near and far for more than two decades. From carefully curated DJ sets in Chicago, New York City and Paris, to studio production and remix work, to editorial pieces for 5 Magazine— Elbert Phillips is truly multi-talented and dynamic. Often referred to as Frankie Knuckles’ warm-up DJ, Elbert is celebrating a new chapter in his life: developing his own label, Entegrity Recordings. Elbert was kind enough to open up about his passion for music as he takes his label full steam ahead for 2018 and beyond.
Interview by Amanda Frontany
AF: Elbert Phillips!! Let’s begin with the wheels of steel…and I’m not talking about turntables. I’m referring to your bicycle!! [laughter] I’ve heard you can be seen riding your bike all over Chicago. So as an avid cyclist, what music are you listening to while you ride?
Elbert Phillips: Yes! When the weather is conducive in the Windy City, I commute seven miles each way to work on my bicycle. Music serves as the perfect narrator for my journey– whether it’s the podcasts of friends who are also passionate about music such as David Lyn’s Music Without Labels out of the U.K. or mixes by Chicago’s Darryl Spivey or Newark, New Jersey native Omar Abdallah– I get really inspired.
AF: And I’m sure you’re also listening to your own productions and mixes…
Elbert Phillips: Definitely. A lot of my musical ideas are born, developed and picked apart on my bike ride. If I’m working on a mix, I tend to let improvisational sensibilities take control. Each transition from one selection to the next is treated differently. And when I’m given a vocal file to build a production around, ideas will form around the artist’s unique voice and the sounds I imagine backing his or her voice. I make mental notes while listening on my bike rides for when I return to the studio to continue my productions.
AF: And one example of your quality musical production is with House Music vocalist Terrance Downs on “Feeling Good,” a beautiful song made famous by Nina Simone. How did this project come about?
Elbert Phillips: Yes, “Feeling Good” was the result of a collaboration with Kalim Shabazz of New York City that began when he sent me an amazing a cappella of Gregory Porter’s interpretation. Kalim wanted to hear what I could do with it. The plan was to take our mixes to Gregory Porter himself. Unfortunately, Mr. Porter’s version of the song was released by an independent label and by the time we put our own mixes together, Gregory Porter was on Universal Music Group. Somehow we didn’t see UMG as a reachable entity, but by giving my mix to a few peers in the U.K., my version began to take on a life of its own. Dr. Bob Jones played it frequently on his radio show The Surgery, which airs on Mi-Soul Radio. Later, I agreed to release the track on Tambor Music, and through the label’s relationship with Terrance Downs, he was brought onboard as the featured vocalist. The transition from Gregory Porter to Terrance Downs as vocalist brought about a unique production challenge. These two artists have distinctively different styles. I loved what Terrance did with his interpretation, and I also incorporated the brilliant soprano saxophonist Rajiv Halim on the production, who did a phenomenal job giving it incredible emotional energy. So after securing a home for the project on Tambor, I had to circle back for Kalim and bring him into the fold.
AF: And what have been the responses to both of your productions of “Feeling Good”– Gregory Porter’s and Terrance Downs’?
Elbert Phillips: Kalim Shabazz and I were thrilled that “Feeling Good” reached the digital marketplace. Having the talented and well-respected Terrance Downs on the team added to our excitement. We plan to work with Terrance again soon. As I mentioned earlier, the Gregory Porter version also took off big time in the U.K.– both Dr. Bob Jones and David Lyn played it at festivals and the dancers loved it. I played it myself at a gig in Brooklyn back in 2016 and the crowd was very enthusiastic. I should’ve played it twice in the same night like the old school DJ’s used to do! [laughter]
AF: Yes! Speaking of the old school DJ’s…perfect opportunity to ask about your relationship with the one and only Godfather of House, Mr. Frankie Knuckles, who sadly left us four years ago. It is well known that he selected you as his “warm-up” DJ back in 2002. You have played opening sets for him at so many of his gigs. Can you share some of your personal insights about him?
Elbert Phillips: When I was a teenager, Frankie Knuckles was one of my heroes. Becoming friends and working with him was a dream of mine that actually came to life. As a DJ, I always wanted to distinguish myself musically, and through finding my sound, I became someone who Frankie relied upon to set the mood for his public and private events. We connected musically because we were both always on the hunt to discover something new. Frankie never rested on his laurels; he was always open and focused on the present and future of music. Being recognized and respected by Frankie as a DJ is one of the many motivating factors that keeps me going in this thing we call House Music. I’ve met a few in the industry who are considered to be “DJ Superstars.” Many are all ego: no personality, no human blood running through their veins. Frankie was the antithesis of that. He took his work seriously, but he handled his success casually. If you danced on his dance floor, or were in line for an in-store Frankie Knuckles CD signing, you were important to him. He knew how to connect with people on and off the dance floor.
AF: Clearly your dear friend Frankie Knuckles will always be an inspiration to you. So let’s fast forward to today. You are in the midst of developing Entegrity Recordings. And I know that you have recently collaborated with the very talented South African singer and multi-instrumentalist Shamrock Guitor.
Elbert Phillips: Absolutely. After hearing Shamrock Guitor on Andy Compton’s “A Father’s Love,” I knew that I wanted to work with him. We’ve worked together on a cover track I’m doing with vocalist Carla Prather; it’s a remake of Ralph Falcon and Barbara Mann’s 90’s classic, “That Sound.” It’ll be released very soon. Shamrock plays guitar on it. I’m always open to working with people who are doing things for the right reasons. There are other projects in the works as well. It’s time for me to live out my dreams as a label owner and release my own projects on Entegrity.
AF: And here I am going to mention one word: “Brotherhood.” Please tell us about this collaboration that you’ve co-created with Chicago producer-extraordinaire Vick Lavender of Sophisticado Recordings. I have had the privilege of listening to “Brotherhood” several times and it is quite amazing if I do say so myself.
Elbert Phillips: Thank you kindly! When David Lyn was making plans last year for his upcoming Music Without Labels All Dayer event in London, he called and asked my thoughts on bringing Vick over to spin along side me. I thought this was a great idea, as Vick and I get along well. I have great memories with Vick and a few friends in Miami at the Winter Music Conference– all the shenanigans we got into. [laughter] I figured a musical collaboration with Vick would be a blast and coincide well with the event in the U.K. So David reached out to Vick, and the next thing I knew, I was at Vick’s place with my flash drive. From that evening on, we hit the ground running.
Vick works with a cadre of seasoned musicians, and it’s beautiful to watch these guys make great music and have so much fun while doing it. So I decided on the title of the track before we finished it: “Brotherhood.” Spike Rebel is smooth, highly creative, and very accommodating. He was attentive and patient as I hummed melodies for him to incorporate. Later, I brought in Rajiv Halim to play soprano saxophone. He crushed it on “Feeling Good” and I wanted him to add his flavor on “Brotherhood.” Vick and his team work long hours, knocking out several projects in a day’s work. Spike played masterfully on those keyboard solos. Thanks again bro! “Brotherhood” reminds me of the kind of music that I heard as a boy coming from my cousin Adrien’s home. He was on top of all the hot R&B and Jazz of that particular time, back in the 70’s. “Brotherhood” conjures up those feelings.
As far as releasing “Brotherhood,” Vick and I decided that his imprint, Sophisticado Music Group, would be the best home for the project, as it will be a vinyl-only release coming this fall. There is something about vinyl that generates a certain kind of enthusiasm with DJ’s and collectors. Not to mention, Vick has a great distributor in [Joe Claussell’s] Atypical Dopeness, so the right people will know about it when we’re ready to set it free into the world.
AF: Yes! Vinyl lovers like me will be looking for that release! And what other musical projects are in the works for Entegrity? Any other collaborations?
Elbert Phillips: Yes, there’s also a project for my friend, Simon McGuinness, better known as Sy Sez. During the production of “Brotherhood,” I was in between studios as my production partner, Andrew Emil, was in the process of revamping his spot. This is when the remix deal for “Falling” fell into my lap for Sy and vocalist Phoenix Pearle. This particular remix got done very quickly because it felt so natural.
AF: Lots of projects to look forward to coming from you. Now in developing Entegrity Recordings, are there current labels or label owners who you look to as models of success?
Elbert Phillips: I admire labels that have demonstrated fair and ethical business practices. Here I have to mention Craig Roseberry at K.I.D. Recordings. We were able to do business on a handshake, and I wasn’t cussin’ afterwards. [laughter] He kept his word throughout our work together, and we’re proud of the productions we did with both artists, Anbuley and Goldswagger, back in 2016. As for Entegrity Recordings, I want my prospective artists to walk away from every business encounter feeling good about the decision to work with me, beyond the release date. There are plenty of labels operating these days that have had much success producing quality music, be it with established or new talent. I feel we must concern ourselves with flavor, not names. There’s plenty of flavor out there for us to broaden our palette!
“…I want my prospective artists to walk away from every business encounter feeling good about the decision to work with me, beyond the release date.”
AF: What are your thoughts on music business as far as protecting your digital releases when we seem to be plagued by file sharing? Both the label and the artist tend to always be on the losing side.
Elbert Phillips: DJ’s and hardcore music collectors want to play and hear the new stuff before it is released to the masses. How will Entegrity satisfy their craving, yet not sabotage the potential for a successful commercial release? For me, it means trusting one or two people with an advanced copy, if any at all. When vinyl was the primary medium, a DJ would ask you for the title of a track you’re playing, but we had too much pride to ask someone for a tape or CD copy of a record. You did your own musical homework because you didn’t want to sound like everyone else. Today many music promotion companies service DJ’s with a tiny 3KB file of advanced material. Small files can go over well for a radio mix show, but try playing that same miniature file on a professional sound system! [laughter] There’s also the ethical treatment of artists to consider. Most people don’t concern themselves with these matters, especially if their only motive for starting a label is to get DJ gigs or further their own position. I want Entegrity releases to leave a big impression on DJs, dancers and listeners, but I want to leave as small of a footprint as possible when I’m dealing with an artist. I don’t want to churn and burn people in order to advance myself. There’s got to be a better way to operate.
AF: What about product longevity? How do you promote a release so that is has staying power beyond the proverbial few weeks?
Elbert Phillips: The business of music promotion and sales changed when the way we purchase music changed. Back in the 1990’s, if you were on Nervous Records or King Street, for example, those labels enjoyed high visibility in the marketplace. Every release wasn’t a chart-topping success, but if you had a hot joint out on a top dance label that received club play from the better DJ’s, you stood a chance at gaining more publicity. Nowadays, product visibility and longevity depend on how you’re positioned, who’s on remix duty, who’s playing and charting your music. Influential people are definitely a factor. I also believe that if you’re producing, selecting and playing music from your heart– people will gravitate towards your sound. Everyone may not get you, but the right people will.
Nothing will be the same as it was. I miss shopping for music at the big retailers (Tower and Virgin) as well as the smaller, more specialized spots. The community within the record store was also a big part of the experience. Whenever I see one of the guys from my record store days, I feel like I’m catching up with an old friend. I truly miss going to the store, interacting face to face, finding that elusive tune that you’ve been wanting for the longest or sacrificing your last $50 on a compilation that features a special extended mix of a hot song, and the attention you would get for going that extra mile. Those days are over. Many of the independently owned record shops and boutiques that I would visit have been replaced by “Big Box” retailers and cellular phone stores. Those boutiques were a source of inspiration for me. Being a proper DJ back then took time and a financial commitment that the average DJ was not willing to make. We trusted our ears back then.
It took some time for me to get used to the idea of shopping online for music. The digital marketplace is oversaturated beyond anything I’ve seen when vinyl was the primary medium. The paltry payout that producers net today is directly connected to this file sharing epidemic, so producers/remixers have to churn out music at a frenetic pace in order to see any revenue. You have to spend a lot more time these days unearthing music that you appreciate, but it’s definitely worth the effort. DJs can be just as close-minded and indifferent as anyone else, especially if they don’t trust their own judgement. Everything is different nowadays, but I don’t want to look at the now-world of music and music business with gloom and trepidation because this is the world that I live in.
“…If you’re producing, selecting and playing music from your heart– people will gravitate towards your sound. Everyone may not get you, but the right people will.”
AF: Yes, change is the only constant, especially due to technology. So more insight into the mind of Elbert Phillips… Where is currently your favorite venue to play a DJ set?
Elbert Phillips: I have a few favorites…in Chicago, there’s Smartbar, Sound-Bar and Club EXP. And there’s Starvue in Brooklyn. All these venues are hot!
AF: And where in the world would you absolutely love to play and have not had the opportunity yet?
Elbert Phillips: I would love to play at the Amsterdam Dance Event, at New York City’s Le Bain (at the Standard Hotel), on the Coney Island boardwalk in Brooklyn, and at a club or two in Japan. So yes, I’m thinking globally! [laughter]
AF: And don’t forget London! Can you tell us more about the upcoming Music Without Labels all-day event with you and Vick Lavender?
Elbert Phillips: Thanks for asking. Vick and I will be playing at the first all-day Music Without Labels event, “A Day To Remember,” and I’m thrilled! I was supposed to make it over last year, but we hit a snag. So I’m looking forward to it, just a few weeks away! Through David Lyn’s Music Without Labels radio show, I’ve met so many pleasant and very knowledgeable individuals: DJ’s, producers and enthusiasts of all stripes. I’m always excited to play a room where the crowd cares only about what’s coming through the speakers. They’re open to sounds they’ve never heard before. So mark your calendar: David Lyn’s wonderfully eclectic Music Without Labels: A Day To Remember is happening this July 14th in London!
AF: And as as a music lover and dancer, where is your favorite place to experience House Music?
Elbert Phillips: As someone who grew up listening to Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles, I always appreciate DJs who take chances musically and send me home inspired. I had that experience at Joe Claussell and Danny Krivit’s Soul Alliance Boat Party on the Circle Line Cruise in New York City. But truly, I have danced and danced at so many great parties over the years in so many places. I’ve been lucky and very inspired.
AF: So looking forward, Elbert…where do you hope to see yourself and Entegrity Recordings in ten years?
Elbert Phillips: I would like Entegrity to grow a solid reputation through quality releases. I want to help artists reach their creative goals. And I want to have fun while doing it all.
AF: Thank you so much Elbert! This was a lot of fun! Please promise me that we will chat again in the future with an update on all things Elbert Phillips and Entegrity Recordings.
Elbert Phillips: We’ll definitely be chopping it up again soon! [laughter]
Brooklyn, New York & Chicago, Illinois
For more information on Elbert Phillips and Entegrity Recordings:
Elbert’s latest Traxsource Chart, “June Jams”: https://www.traxsource.com/title/993758/june-jams